Rabbi Avi Weinstein

If I am Not For Myself…

In Uncategorized on April 26, 2009 at 8:15 pm

Hillel’s famous statement “If I am not for Myself who will be for me, and when I am for myself what am I” instead of “When I am for myself alone what am I” is the translation of choice for all medieval commentators as well as late medieval commentators.

I did find a Sefat Emet which said that advocating for yourself meant getting yourself integrated, and once that was achieved one should use it to connect with knesset yisrael (the community of Israel) which is close to the way we understand it today.

Nearly everyone else sees it as talking about an individual’s spiritual purpose which is to serve God. With the modern era, and probably with the growth of Prophetic Judaism, a Judaism that emphasized social justice, this became the interpretation of choice.

So far I have checked about fifteen sources and except for the Sefat Emet a late 19th early 20th century Hasidic master, I haven’t come up with any other who favors the popular translation. The reason for this is simple. The words don’t seem to mean this, many of us just wanted them to. Even the Sefat Emet understands Hillel as saying the purpose of integrating ones self is to connect with something greater. For him, something greater is the community of Israel.

I think both meanings have much to offer. The question of what it means to advocate for ones self is a profound one, but it remains an open question. The problem with the popular reading is the final sentence: If not now, when? It makes much more sense to read this as enjoining one to get his act together now, so that he can rise to his greater and ultimate purpose. In the popular reading it’s just hanging out there like a non sequitor that begs a creative connection. The simpler reading is usually the more correct one, even if it isn’t the most compelling for most people.

  1. This is great. Bravo. The Hebrew seems quite clear, and I’m surprised that I’ve never heard anyone articulate your (and the early commentators’) interpretation. Given how well-known the quotation is (admittedly mostly in its (mis)translated form) in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world, I see this as an excellent example of that disappointing phenomenon called groupthink.

    People see what they want to see and are too prone to accept what experts tell them, especially if it’s consistent with their own biases. I don’t know if I agree with your statement that both meanings have much to offer, though. The sentiment in the popular translation has much to offer (and perhaps that was your meaning), and many who use it in advocating for social justice are doing important work.

    But I’ll quote a chap named Ravavi, who said that “disciplined thinking is an essential ingredient for creativity” — which I find to be a cogent rendering of a basic truth. I want disciplined thinking and truth, not convenient translations that may or may not support my agenda. We find this too often in journalism, where stories that fit the purportedly unbiased reporter’s worldview are sloppily presented as the truth without proper due diligence. You and I discussed Jenin in another context, and that is a particularly perverse example of how a false story that many found “too good to check” became the accepted story.

    I’m only disappointed that I didn’t come up with this myself! I don’t have any of the learning needed to tackle the tough stuff on my own (or even know which sources I should be looking at), but I know enough Hebrew to see that your translation is clearly superior. Your point about the final statement clinches it: if there were an implied “only” in the second statement, then the third statement would, indeed, be a non sequitur.

    How do you explain other scholars (and plain-old Hebrew readers) not questioning the popular translation? Do you think they (read: we, not including you) fell victim to lazy thinking, or do you think many noticed the error but chose to ignore it since the popular reading meshed with their philosophy?

  2. I think part of it is seeing Hillel as Mr. Nice Guy and not imagining that he could be so self-oriented in a statement that was considered axiomatic in his philosophy. It skews the words. Also, this Mishnah is much more popular with more liberal traditions who embraced this meaning of myself in apposition to my responsibility regarding others. How could the paradigm of humility be an advocate for himself alone. Most traditional commentators do not see it as advocacy per se, but they see that Hillel requires one to have it together in order to be God’s servant. It is only when one understands this as the social justice mishnah that it becomes an anthem. Otherwise, it is just an introspective musing on one’s spiritual purpose.

    That’s what I think.

  3. You nailed it. Your insights are keen, and you have the fount of knowledge to back them up.

    Your one-paragraph summation is wonderfully written, Avi. In just over 100 words, you express what could have taken 1000. Your word choice is superb. I delight in good writing, and you’ve just written a small masterpiece. I hope you use it as the basis for a longer piece or even a chapter of a book.

    That’s what I think.

  4. Ravavi, I am trying to understand this quotation, and I think your intial post might be useful to me, but I'm having trouble understanding which translation you are referring to at different times. When you say the "popular" version, are you talking about what seems to be the common translation nowadays, at least among laypeople (and if i am ONLY for myself), or what seems to have been the popular translation in medeival times, at least among scholars(and if i am for myself)?

    I am particularly confused because you say the "if not now, when?" part of the quotation seems confusing and unnecessary in the "popular" translation. I think that in what seems to be the most common translation nowadays, among laypeople ("and if I am ONLY for myself), the last part of the quotation makes perfect sense, but that it makes no sense in the translation popular in medieval times, among scholars ("and if I am for myself). However, it seemed to me that in other parts of your comment you might be using "popular" to be the one common in medeival times, among scholars.

    Thank you!!! This will help me greatly in understanding what you uncovered.


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